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8 ways to support a loved one with mental illness

When a loved one is struggling, do you know what to say?

loved one mental illness_thumbnail
loved one mental illness_thumbnail

We’ve all had days when we’re feeling down, but when a loved one is struggling with mental illness, would you know what to say?

With 20% of Aussies experiencing mental illness at some point each year, we’re all likely to be affected or know someone who’s affected; and, having a support network is essential to getting through. If a loved one is struggling with their mental health, the most important thing to remember is that you need to take their condition seriously – this isn’t the time to embrace the ‘she’ll be right’ attitude.

So, how do you start the conversation and how can you help?

We spoke to some experts from around Australia to find out a few different ways you can support a loved one experiencing mental illness.

1. Listen

Mental health occupational therapist and founder of Waves of Wellness, Joel Pilgrim, explains that you should never underestimate the power that comes from listening.

“If someone feels they can trust you and share what they're going through, this is a testament to your relationship with them. Listen intently, ask thoughtful questions and show you've heard them by reflecting back with them.”

However, learning to really listen is a skill that can be hard to master, says Dr Addie Wooten, CEO of Smiling Mind.

“Sometimes when we think we’re listening, we’re actually just focussing on what we're going to say next or what we can do to change the situation. Deeply listening to what your loved one is saying can be the best support you can give them. Try and stay in the moment and give them your full attention.”

You can also practice and develop your active listening skills with this free active listening tool from Clearhead.

2. Encourage them to get professional support

It’s important to encourage your loved one to seek professional help, not only to help them with treatment options, but also to help manage any symptoms. Joel says,
“Normalising the pathways to get support can make a huge difference to help-seeking. Encourage your loved one to see their GP. GPs are a great place to start as they’re often the gateway to a range of different support pathways.”

Navigating the journey to find the right therapist can feel overwhelming. That's why Clearhead offers a free tool to help you discover the best match, ensuring a smoother, stress-free process for you and your loved one.

3. Help with appointments

Clinical psychologist at the Black Dog Institute, Dr Aliza Werner-Seidler, explains that a good way to initiate help with a close friend or relative is by offering to make their appointments for them.

“Making the first move to book in an appointment can be daunting, so many people might benefit from having the support of a loved one to help them through it.”
And it doesn’t stop there. Offering to drive or accompany them on the appointment day can help with any last-minute nerves and can also deter them from cancelling.

4. Change your behaviour

It can be hard to remember, but your loved one may not be functioning the way that you’re used to them functioning and they’re probably going to require more patience and care than ever before.

“Someone experiencing a mental health condition is very good at criticising themselves and needs vital support from others, not criticism. Clear and kind communication within the household or family is also important,” says Aliza.

It’s only natural to want to fix things for your loved one, but Addie explains that a little more thought is required when offering advice.

“We all want to try and help people feel better, but sometimes the last thing people need to hear when they're feeling down is to look on the bright side. Instead try and just be there for them; don't try and fix it, just listen, support and let them know you care.”

5. Embrace the treatment process

Aliza encourages you to try and help the treatment process. “If medication has been prescribed, help the person remember to take it and to discuss any side effects with their prescribing doctor. The person may also need encouragement and help getting to therapy appointments or doing therapy exercises.”

Some treatment options include counselling or psychotherapy which is designed to help the person change how they think and act. It’s important to understand that this process can impact relationships as the person tries to acknowledge and change past behaviours. While this process can be difficult for everyone involved, it’s a significant step in resolving your loved one’s difficulties, so it’s important to maintain your support and not to steer the person away from these issues.

“Treatment can help an individual start to re-engage with the good things in life and carers can have their needs met as well," says Aliza.

6. Check in

Don’t feel like you have to bring something deep and profound to every conversation you have with your loved one.

“You don't have to have all the answers; simply being there for someone you love can make all the difference. You are a shoulder to lean on, an ear to share with, and by no means does that imply you need to know what to say or have the solutions,” says Joel.

“Once you've had that first conversation, make sure you continue to check in with the person to see how they're going. It's helpful knowing you're there for them to talk again when they are ready.”

7. Look after yourself as well

“It’s very important for people who are supporting someone with a mental illness to look after themselves, both physically and emotionally. They need to stay well, not only for the person they’re supporting but also for themselves,” says Aliza.

“Part of caring is to care for yourself. Taking the time to care for yourself will help prevent you getting physically rundown and allow you to deal with the thoughts, emotions and stress that can be associated with caring for someone with a mental illness.”

You can find more information about supporting a loved one with a mental illness, including where to go for help, on the Black Dog Institute website.

If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call:

  • Lifeline 13 11 14

  • Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636

  • Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800

All of the charities quoted are supported by nib foundation. We've committed over $21 million in funding to support 166 charity partners to deliver innovative programs that tackle important health issues. Learn more about nib foundation.